‘Mahal Sneham’ – A Seat At The Table

This is the third year in a row when I have attempted to do a written tribute to my dad on his birthday. This year would be his 102nd. February 13, 2018.

There is a song in our hymnbook, Kristhiya Keerthanangal, that starts with the lyrics, ‘Mahal Sneham, Mahal Sneham’

Several of our hymn book songs are from over one hundred years ago, a big chunk of them attributed to Sadhu Kochukunju Upadeshi, (who wrote ‘dukha-thinte pana-pathram’ in 1915). Imagine that. Talk about being immortalized. Well, as he should be.

However, there are also melodies that don’t have an author mentioned, or none known. ‘Mahal Sneham’ is one of those songs. And I do have a story to tell about it.

You may challenge me on this. But here is how I recollect it.

We were at the Chepad parish from 1957-1960.

During this time frame, occurred a visiting stay at our home by a particular upadeshi. Sadly, and uncannily, a key element I can’t recall precisely about this account is this upadeshi’s name. It was some sort of a ‘Biblical’ name like Pathrose or Markose. Markose, I’m leaning towards more.

Even with this name confusion, I can recollect Upadeshi’s unmistakable physique. Dark-skinned, a bit short and stout, wearing a white cotton juba-and-mundu ensemble, with a very low-cost towel (thorth) on his shoulder. I remember this part vividly and with my heart.

You see, Markose upadeshi was from the ‘Paraya’ class. This, too, I’m certain of. Why? we’ll get to the ‘why’ a bit later.

This forgotten evangelist wrote the favoured song, ‘Mahal Sneham, Mahal Sneham’. And he, for sure, doesn’t own the copyright to it.

A man with barely an elementary school education and nothing further, expertly knew the Bible, especially the New Testament and its message, backwards and forwards, and this song is somewhat of a summation of Paul’s Letter To The Romans.

Markose upadeshi was an itinerant preacher, (‘upa-‘deshi’, is ‘someone who is not of the local’), and my innovative dad in his ever-Gospel-spreading mode, and bursting with energy, discovered his bio-data from somewhere and invited him to the parish and to stay with us.

A big convention ensued thereafter on the church premises, that drew huge numbers of people from across the spectrum and from long distances, eager to hear first-hand upadeshi’s testimony of conversion.

From Hindu to Christian. From the Paraya caste to MarThoma.

From working with his hands making dried leaf mats in the green lush of South Asia of the late 1950’s, to preaching the message of a First Century Carpenter from the arid wilderness of the Middle East.

The Sabha for its part, I believe, possibly has no record of what I’m recanting, but believe me (I’m not quoting anyone famous here!), this account is accurate.

And there is a story within this story. Two Tales Of A God’s Messenger.

As most of us would acknowledge, there was a caste system solidly in place in India of old. There were rules of conduct for each class that, in the process, separated them.

There were the four castes that ‘counted’, with placement in a particular order, and were reported in history books and Sacred Texts.

Below that, were the ‘untouchables’ and the unrecorded. (The word ‘untouchable’ should be stricken from the English dictionary of idioms. I hated writing it just now.)

(Mohandas Gandhi in his infinite Godliness called them Hari-jans (God’s people).)

The Paraya (‘Pariah’, or ‘outcast’) class was part of this last sect.

Even though this was an edict of the Hindu religion, Travancore Christians practiced it with serious gusto. Those belonging to these castes didn’t eat with us, use our utensils, enter our houses, didn’t address us.

Most Definitely, they were not given A Seat At The Table.

Except: My dad did. Markose upadeshi stayed with us for a few days, slept in one of our spare beds, and most movingly, had a chair at the dining table next to my dad.

In more ways than I can say, my dad was ahead of his time and place. For better or for worse.

In 2018, one might ask, ‘what’s the big deal’?

I’ll tell you what the deal was. And that is the story within.

As much as folks wanted to hear upadeshi speak, many, many were grumbling about this arrangement. Out of earshot of my parents, they would make sneering remarks about this man, and berate my parents (‘how dare they commit such an outlandish act’, ‘thalaku vattano’?’), obviously unaware a little girl was listening.

To this day I remember one parishioner ‘joking’, ‘kochama-ku eneem payku prashnam kanathillalo.’ See the Paraya class was ‘designated’ to make mats out of dried grass. So, ‘my mother wouldn’t have to buy these mats anymore. Upadeshi can make it for us’, is what was being implied. Never mind the man perhaps hadn’t done it in, like, may be ever.

You see, my concern as a child who understood, was not for the poor upadeshi, or for the unfairness of the social strata.

It was for my parents. These persons who were their benefactors turning on them this way. It stung.

My dad had the softest spot for evangelists, (and for household help, a separate story for another day).

He had an uncompromising habit of tithing exactly 10% and not a paisa less.

There was an empty Horlicks bottle, (which in and of itself was a ubiquitous item in many households, the liquid version of which my sister and I were made to drink every single day), on top of my dad’s book shelf, in which this money was kept. This was set aside for these preachers and others like them, and would not be used for another purpose under any circumstance. Markose upadeshi received the bottle’s entire contents upon his visit.

I must admit, missing further from this account is, what set in motion upadeshi‘s conversion in the first place, or when this song crept into our song book. Somewhere in the 80’s or later. It most certainly was not there in the 60’s. My mother, who possessed a photostatic memory, would’ve known if I had asked her before lapses set in.

Thank you Markose upadeshi for this song, on behalf of all those who have ever been moved by its meaning and melody, for the past sixty years, and counting.

Every time our pianist Christy’s foot goes to the pedal on the church piano with notes of the opening lines from this song, or when Achen spontaneously breaks into it, at the start of the communion round, my heart flutters with thoughts of,

a prairie village in a distant place, in a time long ago and long gone, in Alappuzha district along the coastal plains of the Arabian,

and a ‘touchable’ man who was Touched by God, and another one who assisted in the man’s journey.

That and when I see a Horlicks bottle anywhere.

Happy birthday, Papaji.


 A great Love that secures you A Seat At The Table.



Protestant Reformation

Today marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a movement that was led by a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther, and one that profoundly altered the infrastructure of a Christian Europe.

On October 31, 1517, the day before All Saints’ Day, a solemn day on the church calendar, Luther posted what has historically arrived to be known in theological circles as the 95 Theses, on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.

In reality, they were ‘grievances’ he had with the Roman Church, of which he was a huge part.

Luther’s grievance Number One, if it can be called that, was against the price of ‘indulgences’ the church levied on mostly poor peasants, who supposedly committed what the Church considered as sins, in their teachings and in the indoctrinated understanding of the peasants themselves, heavy drinking a chief one among them.

I guess one had to ‘pay’ to the church to have their ‘sins absolved’.

So the math works that, if the flock sin more, the church’s coffers get richer.

This penance offering was used almost entirely to construct The Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, arguably the most breath-taking structure in all the world.

I have stood on the cobble-stoned steps of the majestic Saint Peter’s Square that houses the basilica, with the arms of the gigantic Roman columns all around me as if in an embrace.

To say, I got all goose-bumped would be an understatement.

And The Sistine Chapel. La Capella Sistina.

What is there to say about it? How can one describe it?

the Reformation in Western Europe had followed the Italian Renaissance and coexisted in close historical epoch, one enriching the other.

The famous fresco painting on the chapel’s ceiling, ‘The Creation of Adam’: where God as a dynamic figure on the right, lifting Adam up from his slumber, Adam as the lithe figure on the left, their forefingers reaching for each other’s but not touching, creating that space between them where infinite possibilities exist.

Frankly, It’s disingenuous to soak this all in to a hilt, and then disapprove of the method by which it got there.

It’s equally hard for me to fathom this was the effort of a mere Man. I have no doubt whatsoever it was Divinely inspired. God was there holding the Man’s (a devout one) hand.

So, In a strange sort of admission, I’m glad Pope Leo commissioned it. (Apparently Michelangelo didn’t come cheap. 😁)

However, I wonder what Peter would say to seeing all this. Jesus might say to His most trusted disciple: Hey, Pathrose! This is not what I had in mind. 😉

So in a more real sense, I’m glad the indulgences were done away with.


The theology of the protestant reformers departed from the Roman Catholic Church on the basis of, at a minimum, three great principles.

  • The sole authority of the Scripture.
  • Justification by faith alone.
  • Priesthood of the believer.

There were other major and significant points as well. It’s too lengthy to elaborate on them in this space. (Each one is a separate blog.)

Christian Community may not be cognizant of these Doctrinal differences, as much as what has really ‘set us up apart’ for five centuries, which are the seminal changes that occurred after and as a result.

This tide-turning movement that happened in the 1500-year-old Church’s history ushered in (among others):

-The end of priestly celibacy (Luther got married),

-Translating the Bible into local vernacular, so that lay people could read, study, and interpret, the Word of God all on their own (Luther translated much into German),

-Incorporating sermons and hymns during worship service (‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’, a personal all-time favorite hymn, was written by Martin Luther himself.)

-and priests playing a significant role in parishioners’ daily lives, pastoring of sorts. Parish life became part of one’s spiritual life.

A single man single-handedly stood down the Pope, and Christendom was ruptured along its fault lines.

While the centrality of the Papal authority has enabled the Roman Church to remain as one, the schisms in the Protestant movement have led to innumerable denominations within it, each with different doctrines and core practices. Staying true to its name: as people who protest.


Exactly 318 years after this major crack in Europe’s Christianity, a similar kind of Reformation found its way across the continent to the Malabar Coast of Southern India, to the Malankara Syrian Church of Malabar and Travancore.

This is known as ‘Navee-karanam’ in Malayalam (meaning Renewal), and The Malankara MarThoma Syrian Church of Malabar was formed in 1835, and has never looked back.

And I’d say The MarThoma Church grabbed this crusade by its horns, and kind of ‘ran with it’. The structure, and The Practices.

One would expect nothing less from the ‘Syrian Chrsitians’ of Travancore, right?

-The Singing, the Memory Verses.

-Localized Prayer Groups within a parish (Prarthana Muri), Vicar’s church-mandated house visits (Bhavana Sandarshanam) to parishioners’ homes.

-The ‘Suvishesha Sevika Sankham’, the women’s arm that was solely created to empower women, in a way no one else dared in 1919 Travancore;

An event that was preceded by the founding of the Nicholson Syrian Girls High School in 1910, modeled after schools in Britain for the same great cause of educating girls in a Christian setting.

-The ‘Sannadha Suvishesha Sankham’, dedicated to the spreading of the Gospel.

-The Maramon Convention, a Western-origin ‘revivalist’ gathering, the largest of its kind in Asia.

And so much more.

I can claim without equivocation, that no denomination pays the kind of singular attention to learning the Bible the way The MarThoma Church does, not even Mainline American Protestant churches. Seriously, the best part.

At the core of it, MarThoma Church‘s foundation is and has always been The Gospel of Jesus Christ: the Four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It used to bear that if something’s not in one of the four Gospels, we did not practice it. This may have transformed over the course of the last century, as complacency and the need to conform with outside strictures have crept in, but the core remains pretty much the same.

For better or for worse, here we are, one half of a millennium later.

Regardless of how it all turned out, we all owe much to the forerunners who brought about the positive changes; even the Roman Catholics must be pleased: after all who needs those who press for changes all the time?

And in honour of Martin Luther and one Abraham Malpan (called The Luther of the East),

Happy Reformation Day to all…